Rumour has it that Vanuatu has agreed to a Chinese request to establish a military base. The substance of this rumour is highly speculative at the least and disingenuous at most. Regardless of the truth, the fact that it raises alarm about the threat of Chinese military expansionism speaks volumes about Australian foreign policy, particularly toward the Pacific.
On Monday, Fairfax Media reported that “China had approached Vanuatu” about setting up a “permanent military presence” – in other words, a base.
The article went on to speculate about the dramatic strategic importance of the “globally significant move that could see the rising superpower sail warships on Australia’s doorstep”. Furthermore, this Chinese base “would … upend the long standing strategic balance in the region” and would likely be followed by bases elsewhere.
Multiple international media outlets have syndicated the story. Much of the coverage alluded to military threats and a shift in the strategic balance. The language is reminiscent of Cold War bipolarity: “their” gain is “our” loss.
On face value, this sounds like a serious geostrategic issue for Australia. But on close examination, the threat is more apparent than real. An indication of which is that nowhere are Chinese or Vanuatuan interests in provoking this form of strategic competition explained.
From the beginning, every assertion was countered by one of the primary players. Multiple representatives of the Vanuatu government have been at pains to deny the story. For instance, Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu was quoted as saying:
No-one in the Vanuatu Government has ever talked about a Chinese military base in Vanuatu of any sort.
As the story spiralled out of control, he then told SBS News it was “fake news” concocted by a Fairfax Media journalist.
Multiple Chinese government sources have denied the story and also described it as “fake news”. China also has assured the Australian government that the story has no validity.
In the original article, it was noted that talks between China and Vanuatu were only “preliminary discussions” and that “no formal proposals had been put to Vanuatu’s government.” So given these caveats, and the comprehensive denials, this raises some serious questions about why this rumour was newsworthy in the first place.
So where did it come from? Presumably Fairfax Media would only have acted if the information was from a highly placed Australian government source that could be verified. Presumably this unnamed source has leaked sensitive intelligence, but it is curious that no Australian Federal Police investigation has been announced.
This has been the past practice from the Turnbull government in relation to national security leaks, and there is no sign the government is at all concerned about this leak.
In contrast, it has used this rumour for megaphone diplomacy against both Vanuatu and China. For example, after accepting the Chinese government’s denial, the prime minister said:
We would view with great concern the establishment of any foreign military bases in those Pacific island countries and neighbours of ours.
And it was the latter rather than the former statement that was covered by many media outlets.
This is very telling. Canberra is clearly sending signals to Beijing and Port Vila that it maintains significant strategic interests in the region (and is a message not lost on other Pacific capitals).
This concern is not new as Australia practised strategic denial in the South Pacific against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. More recently, speculation about Fiji’s relations with China and Russia was raised. But megaphone diplomacy with Fiji has proven unsuccessful in the past.
This approach simply rehashes colonial tropes about Pacific Island Nations being economically unsustainable, corrupt, and easily influenced by great powers. This is reinforced by China’s alleged influence borne from budget support, and capital and aid flows into the Pacific.
What these colonial stereotypes fail to acknowledge is that the foreign policies of Pacific Island countries have matured. Vanuatu is a committed member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), eschewing formal military alliances and entanglements with great powers. The lesson of Fiji’s strong stance against Australian sanctions is that it too has created an independent foreign policy. Neither country will be easily influenced by foreign powers, including Australia.
Returning to the “truth”. It is true that China’s influence in the region has grown dramatically in recent years, especially during the sanctions years from 2006 to 2014, when Canberra attempted to isolate Fiji.
It is also true that military diplomacy is a key element of China’s foreign policy approach (to the Pacific as in Africa). A final truth is that Vanuatu has a high level of debt dependence on China and is a major beneficiary of Chinese aid. However, this does not mean that Vanuatu is being influenced into accepting a Chinese military base.
At some stage, Vanuatu might very well sign an agreement that allows transit and refuelling of Chinese vessels, as is commonplace in international relations. As Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop told Radio National: “these sorts of visits are normal for many neighbours around the world.”
If so, then all we have learned from this episode is that old colonial habits die hard, and the chances of dispassionately dealing with the geo-strategic rise of China are narrowing.
In December, the Turnbull Government tabled sweeping new national security legislation in response to what the PM called “disturbing reports of Chinese influence” in Australian politics.
An ongoing parliamentary review of the proposed laws has attracted hundreds of public submissions, with intelligence agencies and civil society organisations predictably lining up on opposite sides of the argument.
More surprising, perhaps, is the controversy the laws have sparked within Australia’s community of China experts.
On March 19, a group of 30 China scholars submitted a petition calling for the espionage and foreign interference legislation to be withdrawn, pending more extensive consultation and rigorous, measured public debate.
The open letter argued the bill directly threatened academic freedom, and that the “alarmist tone” of recent public discourse over China was impinging Australia’s ability to calmly and rationally deal with the issues.
In particular, it warned that “a racialised narrative of a vast official Chinese conspiracy” was taking shape:
We should be vigilant that public discourse in Australia does not create undue pressure on one particular section of our society to demonstrate its loyalty to Australia at the expense of its freedom to criticise Australian policies and actions.
A week on, a different group of China and Asia experts submitted another letter — ostensibly in response to the first — defending public policy debates over the issue in light of “well-documented reports about the Chinese Communist Party’s interference” in Australia. It read:
We firmly believe the current debate is not characterised by racism and that it is crucial for Australia to continue this debate. Indeed, Chinese Australians are among the main initiators and drivers of this debate.
The rival letters attracted international media coverage, with a reports touting a split among Australian China scholars over the issue.
But how much did the two letters really differ?
In fact, the two letters share a great deal in common. Both call for informed debate over the issues; both denounce racism; both affirm scrutiny of the CCP’s activities in Australia and the application of legal penalties where evidence of wrongdoing is clear.
Most signatories would agree that discussion of the set of issues raised is necessary, and that it is not motivated by racism. They would also agree that new laws may be necessary but must be carefully drafted, and there have been problematic elements in the public debate as it has unfolded so far.
Both lists of signatories contain trenchant critics of Beijing, as well as relatively China-friendly voices.
Yet, I’m aware of only one person who signed both.
Why have Australia’s China scholars cleaved into two camps on a matter of great public interest that requires their collective expertise — camps that seem to cut across personal networks and ideological preferences?
To some extent, as ANU National Security College head Rory Medcalf has observed, this reflects healthy scholarly disagreements among colleagues.
But the rival letters are also indicative of a less-than-healthy polarisation in the discourse at a time when identifying consensus views might be more valuable. After all, the letters were substantively in agreement on many of the key issues.
It may help, then, to clarify what we do disagree about.
As a signatory to the first letter, but not the second, I can identify four main points of contention. Yet, as shown below, even within these four areas there appears to be more agreement than the rival letters might suggest.
Four points of contention
The scope of CCP activities in Australia
While the first letter cautions against conflating distinct China-related issues in Australia into “a vast official Chinese conspiracy”, the second offers a list of ten bullet-point examples of the “CCP activities” Australia should be vigilant against.
The list ranges from espionage and intimidation of dissidents, to university student groups and pro-China political rallies.
The view that vigilance is warranted over the party’s activities in Australia should be uncontroversial. It is an unreformed and increasingly dictatorial Leninist regime with a ministerial-level department tasked with instrumentalising non-party actors to advance the party’s interests and counter its perceived enemies.
The scope of this “United Front Work” system is vast and expanding, and it is rooted in a thoroughly cynical vision of the world. It is an institution and a vision that Australians — especially political elites — ought to be properly educated about.
But it should also be equally uncontroversial to affirm that a person or group’s inclusion as a target within the scope of united front work does not constitute grounds for suspecting them of disloyalty or subversiveness if they espouse a CCP-friendly view on an issue.
Causes of racist and alarmist sentiments
The first letter criticises the Australian media for fanning “suspicion and stigmatisation of Chinese-Australians”.
The second letter acknowledges the public discourse has prompted “alarmist and racist sentiments”, but argues this is an inevitable side effect of having a debate in the first place.
Perhaps we could at least agree that the prevalence of racism and alarmism on the fringes of a debate depends significantly on the language used by those in the mainstream debate.
If so, this would narrow the disagreement down to whether or not the costs of using inaccurate and inflammatory language such as “Chinese”, “invasion”, “infiltration”, and “penetration” are acceptable.
The meaning of sovereignty
The first letter argues there’s no evidence that the PRC’s activities are aimed at challenging Australia’s sovereignty. The second letter, by contrast, advocates action to counter “threats to sovereignty”.
Each appears to have a different notion of sovereignty in mind.
If the word means, narrowly, paramount legal authority within territorial limits, then a PRC challenge to Australia’s sovereignty implies that it seeks to lay claim to parts of the Australian landmass, or reduce its polity to a tributary “vassal”. But as the first letter pointed out, there is to date no credible evidence of this.
On the other hand, there have been clear instances of PRC violations of Australian sovereignty in recent years. In 2015, for example, Chinese undercover police pursued a fugitive on Australian territory. Importantly, in that case, Beijing admitted its wrongdoing.
Interference with the political freedoms of residents of Australia, such as intimidation of dissidents’ families in China, also arguably violate Australia’s sovereignty in a broad sense.
Neither letter defines sovereignty, but both invoke the word’s emotive power. Those of us speaking of a CCP threat to Australian sovereignty (or absence thereof) might be able to agree on more if we specify in what sense this is (not) the case.
Threats to democratic politics in Australia
Whereas the second letter emphasises the threats that CCP activities pose to democracy and free speech, the earlier letter suggests the sweeping proposed national security laws and alarmist public discourse were creating an even more immediate threat to democratic political rights.
It is hardly in doubt that the CCP’s activities undermine the political values of democracy, liberalism and openness. It is openly hostile to them.
But there are well-documented cases of self-censorship resulting from the alarmist tone in Australia’s public discourse on the issue, with reports of some Chinese-Australian politicians growing afraid of associating with CCP-linked community figures.
The second letter affirms that all residents of Australia “should be able to express their point of view free of fear or censorship, whether from forces foreign or domestic”.
This suggests, once again, that there is significant overlap among China scholars even within this ostensible area of disagreement. Specifically, both seem to recognise that threats to democratic rights exist inside Australia as well as outside.
A risk-management approach
Where to from here? In an upcoming report, I argue that if Australia wants to maintain a broad engagement with a powerful, increasingly dictatorial Leninist party-state ruling a billion-plus people while maintaining a liberal democracy, it will require careful understanding and management of the risks involved.
It will not be possible to simply disallow all CCP “operations of influence” without impinging on the very democratic rights the CCP threatens.
Conflating distinct issues (for example, espionage, lobbying, Chinese-language media, student activism) under single sweeping labels (such as “influence” or “operations”) that imply they’re all part of one Beijing-orchestrated campaign of subversion is also not helpful in developing methodical, systematic responses.
Policymakers in Beijing may dream of coordinating a vast conspiracy involving ethnic Chinese all over the world advancing the CCP’s interests, but that does not make it a reality.
Australia’s approach, I argue, should be to carefully disaggregate the various problems under discussion in this debate and risk-manage them individually, rather than grasping for some kind of resolution that will free Australia of “CCP influence”.
This article has been amended. The line that originally read: Yet, I’m not aware of a single person who signed both has been changed to Yet, I’m aware of only one person who signed both.
Australian firms are in a sweet spot between the bickering United States and China, where they can sell more and buy more cheaply because of weaker competition in both markets. Essentially, the mutual tariffs are a double blessing for Australia.
The latest escalation of the ongoing tariff war promises to impact on international trade exchanges to the tune of A$130 billion per year across a broad range of economic sectors, including metals, drugs, motor vehicles, electronic components, industrial machinery and foods.
Australia is one of the best placed countries in the world to reap the gains of the likely trade diversions. For example, Australian beef producers will be much more competitive in exporting to China as their American competitors have to grapple with the 25% tariff on their beef. On the other side, as China raises tariffs on soybeans, Australia could buy this product more cheaply from US farmers keen to find new distribution channels.
Six signs China wants to avoid a trade war
Australia’s main competitors for this double market grab are just a handful of highly developed economies with sizeable commercial ties with both the US and China. These include Canada, the EU, Japan and South Korea.
But in comparison with these trading competitors, Australia has a natural advantage due to the ease of access to maritime routes right across the Asia Pacific region.
While Europe is also in between the American and Asian continents, its overland trading routes are far less developed than the maritime ones and are also clogged by hostile countries such as Russia, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India.
Canada is also at a disadvantage to Australia because of its more embedded economy and supply chains with the US. The challenging renegotiation of the North America Free Trade Agreement with the US and Mexico could also stunt Canada’s range of trading action.
Similarly across the Pacific, Japan and South Korea share Canada’s tricky position as they are too close to their powerful neighbour, in this case China. Not to mention that South Korea is also under intense geopolitical pressure from President Trump to renegotiate its advantageous bilateral free trade agreement with the US.
Australia is sitting pretty
Australia doesn’t pose a direct strategic threat to either China or the US, as its economy and military power is not too big. And it’s not so small that it can be easily trumped. Also, its location is not too close, yet not too far from any of the major contenders for primacy in the Asia Pacific region.
Australia has skin in the game but not to an indispensable degree. More important still, Australia has solid and mutually beneficial bilateral free trade agreements with both China and the US, which gives more predictability to the country’s trade and investment flows.
In fact, as the Australian Trade minister, Steve Ciobo remarked, Australia is relatively safe from any retaliatory action from the Trump administration thanks to a negative trade balance with the US.
On top of that, in terms of foreign direct investment Australia has ample room and need to diversify its over-reliance on US money. Official data show the US tops the list of foreign investment in Australia with 27% of total value by country, which is a level 10 times bigger than Chinese investments. On the other hand, Australian capital mostly flows out to the US (28% of total value) and not very much to China (only 4%).
It’s handy for Australia that the US Trade Representative has flagged new restrictions on Chinese investment in the US to
contain “China’s stated intention of seizing economic leadership in advanced technology as set forth in its industrial plans, such as Made in China 2025”. This means more investment spillovers are likely to flow between China and Australia with more favourable terms than ever.
Deeper investment ties with China will make an increasing negative trade balance with Australia more acceptable to China over the long term. Also this dynamic places Australia’s economy in pole position to take advantage of the improving quality of Chinese financial markets. This is evident in the ongoing rebalance of the Chinese economy, as it moves towards more reliance on growing consumer demand and away from inefficient, debt-fuelled investment.
Overall we are in the presence of a paradox. What in ordinary times used to be Australia’s vulnerabilities may instead prove its strategic strength in the context of a trade tug-of-war between the US and China.
As long as the trade war does not escalate to a full-blown military conflict, on the face of it Australia can still afford to sit on the commercial fence. With this pragmatic economic approach, cynics may well define Australia as a vulture country.
But to be realistic, the US-China trade war gives Australia the unprecedented chance to expand its economic footprint in the geopolitical agendas of both global superpowers. At such uncertain times, even more than pure economic profit, this strategic improvement will be the sweetest fruit for the lucky country.
Academics in Australia might reflect on the fact that scholarly books critical of the Chinese Communist Party are now shunned by publishers. Scholars who work on China know that continued access to the country requires them to play by Beijing’s rules, which for most means self-censorship – the dirty secret of China studies in Australia.
In February, Alex Joske, my researcher for the book and of Chinese heritage himself, wrote in the New York Times that as Beijing’s interference in Australian society intensifies:
… the voices of the Chinese-Australians alarmed by Beijing’s encroachment are being drowned out by an aggressive Chinese government campaign to silence critics here.
Once quite vocal, pro-democracy activists, supporters of Tibetan autonomy, and Falun Gong practitioners are barely heard nowadays. In my book, I describe how this marginalisation has been carried out.
Examples are legion. The New York Times recently reported that Taiwanese workers at restaurants in Sydney have been sacked because, when asked whether they believe Taiwan belongs to China, they say “no”.
It only takes a few examples like this to send a signal to all Taiwanese in Australia to keep their views to themselves if they go against Beijing. This kind of violation of democratic principles — not to mention employment law — has for years been ignored by the mainstream.
Soon after Allen & Unwin pulled publication of my book, a retired businessman phoned. For years he has been taking in Chinese students as lodgers. Recently, he was walking through the CBD with one of those students when they came upon a Falun Gong practitioner collecting signatures on a petition. When he said “let’s go over”, she begged him not to. She kept walking while he signed the petition.
Two weeks later, the student’s parents back in China had the Ministry of State Security knocking on their door. They were warned to keep an eye on their daughter, who was creating trouble in Australia.
Think about that. Chinese authorities in Australia are monitoring Falun Gong practitioners on the streets of Sydney and Melbourne, photographing anyone who interacts with them. They can identify any ethnically Chinese person and put them on a watchlist.
In the course of researching my book, I spoke with pastors at Chinese churches in Australia who believe their congregations and community groups have Communist Party agents spying on behalf on the consulate. Some Chinese-Australians cannot even go to their places of worship without Beijing’s vast security apparatus watching and reporting on them.
Few religious groups of modern times have experienced more coercion and violence than practitioners of the peaceful spiritual practice Falun Gong. Working through the consulates, the sinister 610 Office has harassed, threatened and bullied Falun Gong practitioners in Australia and frightened off sympathetic politicians.
Last year, Feng Chongyi, an associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney, was forcibly detained in China for a week while doing research on human rights lawyers. China does not like what he is uncovering and wanted to send an unambiguous message that he should change what he works on in Australia.
It’s important to understand that the effect of Beijing’s suppression of critical voices in the Chinese-Australian community is not confined to pro-democracy and Tibetan autonomy activists. The dominant narrative in the community is now one that supports the Communist Party view of the world.
Leading Sinologist John Fitzgerald has shown how the once-diverse Chinese-language media became overwhelmingly pro-Beijing. Chinese-language media in Australia is subject to Beijing’s censorship regime. Chinese-Australians who speak about human rights violations or complain about Beijing’s interference in Australian politics are vilified.
A young Chinese-Australian who wants to enter politics knows that any criticism he or she may make of, for example, party influence operations in Australia will result in bad press and pressure from “community leaders”. If they were to persist, family members in China may receive intimidating visits from state security. It’s much easier to stay out politics.
This is a denial of their democratic rights. It means that Chinese-Australians critical of the Communist Party have no representation in parliament. Who will speak up for them if their family is threatened, or if their business in Australia is sent broke by a boycott organised by the consulate?
Enabling the silencing
Instead of giving these critics of the Communist Party a voice, some of our political leaders have collaborated in their silencing. They shun them, even condemning them when they protest outside the Sydney consulate, while mixing with and responding to “community leaders” who typically head United Front organisations guided by the party through its network of agencies that operate in Australia.
In February, Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen expressed outrage in parliament because Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had threatened violence against any Cambodian-Australians who staged a protest during his visit to Australia. Bowen declared he would defend the right of Cambodian-Australians to protest and would not allow peaceful protesters to be harassed and bullied.
Good for him. But where is Bowen when Chinese-Australians are threatened and intimidated by China’s state security apparatus in Australia? Where is he when supporters of Tibetan autonomy are drowned out and intimidated on the streets of Sydney?
Bowen is a prominent member of the New South Wales Right faction of the Labor Party and accordingly has been the recipient of largesse from wealthy Chinese businessmen close to Beijing. He has been flown to China at the expense of the Communist Party and an organisation run by Huang Xiangmo, the businessman ASIO warned the major political parties to avoid taking money from.
Bowen has been a patron of the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, the peak United Front body closely associated with Huang Xiangmo.
As my book appeared in the bookshops, the big beasts of the NSW Right came out to monster me because I have said they are too close to Communist Party front groups and agents of influence. Bob Carr, Paul Keating and Graham Richardson attempted to trash my reputation and make me out as a Sinophobe and closet racist.
They are embarrassed when anyone draws attention to the evidence of the deep penetration of the Chinese state into their part of the Labor Party. They should know that the more they try to shut down critics, the more we will ask what they have to hide.
Like others, I have puzzled over the astonishing level of naivety in this country about what China is doing here.
It doesn’t seem enough to speak, as some have, of being blinded by the money or referring to the natural openness of Australians. For some, it’s almost a wilful unwillingness to see, despite the powerful evidence of China’s aggressive intentions.
When writing Silent Invasion, I anticipated that its arguments would be dismissed as rooted in xenophobia and that I am just stirring a cauldron of anti-Chinese racism. I have a pretty good record of anti-racism over the decades, but for some that counts for little.
More to the point, in the book I tried hard to reflect the experiences of those Chinese-Australians who are critical of the Chinese Communist Party and feel threatened by it in their new home.
I discussed with some of them the risk of racist groups misusing the book to reinforce their prejudices. The typical response was: “Well, what’s the alternative? Should you just say nothing?”
The judgement of these Chinese-Australians is that they may have to take some collateral damage to win the larger battle. They are much more worried about the vast apparatus of Communist Party coercion than some wave of anti-Chinese sentiment.
From the moment I began researching and writing Silent Invasion, I resolved to ensure that none of the criticisms I made of the Chinese Communist Party could be construed as anti-Chinese or anti-China.
I knew that nothing I did would deter the party from its usual conflation of the party and the nation. And true to form its spokespersons in Canberra and Beijing have stuck to the party line, attacking the book as “racist bigotry” and “anti-Chinese”.
If you just read Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, Chinese Embassy statements, and Beijing’s trolls on social media, you’d think the danger we face in Australia is not Chinese Communist Party interference operations but the risk of inflaming anti-Chinese racism by calling out the party.
The problem lies not in Xi Jinping’s aggressive assertion of a newly risen China, but the stain on our own history. Our first goal must not be to resist growing foreign interference, but to keep the lid on fringe sentiments here.
But what of China experts in Australia? Surely they can see what is happening. Most of the serious ones can and have been trying to draw attention to it for some years.
Others, like the University of Sydney’s David Brophy, prefer to put their ideological purity on display. In a ranting “review” of Silent Invasion, he argued that when discussing the Chinese Communist Party’s interference operations in Australia, people like me and the string of China experts who take a similar view have got it all back to front.
For Brophy, when the issue of foreign interference arises, we must not “shift the blame onto China” but “confront our own failings”.
Concern about Communist Party interference in Australia, opines Brophy, actually “reflects a deep malaise in Australian society”. Really? Then Taiwan, Singapore, Canada, the US, New Zealand and several European countries, where the same debate is taking place, must be suffering from the same malaise.
In truth, when someone who is being bullied or violated is accused of just imagining it, we call it victim-blaming.
When Brophy dismisses the mountain of evidence of Communist Party interference in Australia as “imagined subversion”, he shares the assessment of his vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, who has labelled the mounting warnings by the government, based largely on ASIO reports, as “Sinophobic blatherings”.
As I suggest in Silent Invasion, Spence’s University of Sydney is among the most compromised of this country’s academic institutions.
It’s not Silent Invasion, but the reaction to it, that has highlighted something troubling in the intellectual life of the nation. The fault is not an incipient xenophobia ever-ready to burst forth in anti-Chinese racism, as if our universities inherited the culture of the gold fields.
No, the fault lies in the sacrifice of intellectual rigour to the guilt felt by politically correct academics for what happened on the goldfields. For the Chinese Communist Party, this fault is a rich seam to mine in its quest to exert its influence here.
The defunct Chinese space station Tiangong-1 is falling back to Earth and about to crash land some time over the next few days. Most experts expect much of it to burn up as it enters the atmosphere, but it is likely that some pieces of the 8.5-tonne station will survive re-entry.
While the odds of the debris falling on a person are small, you may ask: who is liable in the event of damage caused by a space object to a person or property?
Under international law, a State is liable for damage caused by its “space objects” to another State or its space objects. Liability arises under the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty, which deals both with State responsibility for activities in outer space and the attribution of liability where damage has been caused by a space object.
The Outer Space Treaty is an international agreement, which came into force in October 1967, has more than 100 member countries, including Australia and perhaps more importantly China.
Rules and liability
The Treaty provides the basic rules of use of outer space by nation States. It requires them to carry on activities in the exploration and use of outer space, in accordance with international law and in the interest of promoting international co-operation and understanding.
States who are parties to that Treaty “shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space” regardless of whether those activities are undertaken by or on behalf of the government or by non-government entities.
This is important as it imposes liability on States who are party to the Treaty, rather than the corporations or entities who are launching or operating the space object.
In other words, national governments are responsible to the international community for activities undertaken with respect to space activities by their nationals, whether the launch occurs from that State or not. They are also responsible for launches from their territory by foreign entities.
That means Australia is still responsible for the Australian-built satellites launched last year even though they were launched from Cape Canaveral, in the US.
States will be liable for damage to another State who is party to the Outer Space Treaty caused by the space object or its parts, on Earth and in air and outer space. This includes damage to people, property and corporations.
Damages and compensation
No guidance is given under the Treaty regarding how liability for the damage is to be calculated. But a further treaty, called the Liability Convention, provides some further guidance.
The Liability Convention provides in Article II that a “launching state” will be:
(…) absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space object on the surface of the Earth or to aircraft in flight.
This high standard of absolute liability reflects what were perceived by the drafters of the treaty as particularly vulnerable parties. People and property on Earth and aircraft in flight cannot avoid or reduce their potential harm from space from catastrophic launch failure or space debris.
But where damage is caused other than on the surface of the Earth or aircraft in flight the principle of fault is applied. The Convention does not elaborate on how fault is to be determined.
On Earth we are used to applying principles of negligence to accidents involving people or property. Negligence considers issues such as the potential of harm occurring, the foreseeability of that harm and whether sufficient measures were taken to reduce or avoid that harm.
It is not clear if these sorts of calculations exist with respect to space.
What is clear is that the Convention is intended to be “victim-oriented”. Claims for damage may relate to any harm caused by the space object including direct and indirect harm.
Article XII says compensation is to be determined on the basis that it should restore the person:
(…) to the condition which would have existed if the damage had not occurred.
But it wasn’t our fault
What about where objects collide in space causing harm to a third party? In this case liability may be shared by the launching States of the colliding space objects, again in accordance with their respective fault, where the damage is in space, absolutely if the damage is on Earth or an aircraft in flight.
Some exceptions exist where the State making the claim with respect to harm is actually responsible for that harm, through its own gross negligence or an intention to cause harm.
There has only been one claim made under the Liability Convention. The Government of Canada made a CA$6 million claim for compensation to the Soviet Union after its Cosmos 954, a nuclear powered satellite, crashed in Northern Canada on January 24, 1978.
While the final, diplomatically negotiated settlement of CA$3 million, did not specifically mention the Liability Convention, it is generally considered that the settlement was negotiated in the context of the Convention. Those costs related to clean up of the contaminated site in such a remote area.
In 1979 debris from NASA’s Skylab fell to Earth in Western Australia. NASA advertised for claims with respect to damage caused by the debris, but no State-based claims were formally made under the Liability Convention.
There were some claims regarding illegal dumping: the local Shire of Esperance issued NASA with a A$400 littering fine. It was eventually paid in 2003 by a US radio presenter and his listeners who raised the funds.
Tiangong-1 was China’s first attempt at a space station. It was launched aboard a Long March 2F/G rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on September 30, 2011, so it is China’s responsibility.
In the unlikely event that a piece of the Tiangong-1 falls on an Australian, the Australian government would need to pursue a claim with respect to any injury the person suffered against the Chinese government. Such a claim could take many years through diplomatic channels.
Unfortunately, an individual cannot make a claim on his or her own behalf.
I therefore suggest that before you get hit by a piece of space junk, you check your health insurance!
Any day now, the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 is expected to fall back to Earth – but it’s uncertain where it will crash land. We know that Australia is in the potential zone, and we have been hit before by a falling space station.
But Tiangong-1 is just one of many pieces of space junk left orbiting our Earth.
The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) says more than 8,000 objects have been launched in to space, with 4,788 currently still in orbit around the Earth.
With every launch, even more space junk is produced ranging from the rocket boosters, to flakes of paint and the satellites themselves. In 2009 an old communication satellite crashed into a new one, creating thousands of pieces of smaller debris.
From a heavenly place
Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace”, was China’s first space station – a small version of the International Space Station – and was launched in September 2011. Weighing a bit more than 8 tonnes, about 10 metres long and 3 metres in diameter, it was the first of three planned space stations.
After delays in Tiangong-2, the Tiangong-2 and Tiangong-3 were merged and Tiangong-3 was launched in 2016. Tiangong-1 has subsequently not been in use and was always designed to come down back to Earth.
But where will it crash land?
A drop in the ocean
Halfway between New Zealand and South America in the Pacific Ocean is one of the most un-inhabited places on the Earth. This is the ideal location to have large pieces come back down, as the risk to lifeforms is minimal.
While most of these objects will break up into smaller bits, choosing a remote location then further minimises the risk of these bits.
When you look at maps of satellite and space junk re-entry, the majority go straight over Australia and New Zealand. That is because re-entry starts roughly between 80km and 100km above the ground, takes around 15 to 20 minutes, and creates debris footprints hundreds-to-thousands of kilometers wide.
Therefore in order to hit the target of the southern Pacific Ocean, it must start over Australia and New Zealand.
But there’s one important feature that makes Tiangong-1 different in all of this: it is out of control, according to China’s space agency.
Crashed in Australia
While most missions now plan on re-entry, this was not always the case and Skylab did not have a good plan for coming back to the Earth. It was designed for a nine-year lifetime, but no clear manoeuvrability was built to re-enter at a specific point.
As news came out that it was going to re-enter, and it was not clear where, there was a varied response. Some people staged Skylab parties, others operated safety measures (such as air raid siren preparedness in Brussels).
After it hit WA, the local Shire of Esperance issued NASA with a cheeky A$400 littering fine for scattering debris across its region. It was eventually paid in 2003 – not by NASA, but by a US radio presenter and his listeners who raised the funds.
So in 2016 when China notified UNOOSA that Tiangong-1 was uncontrolled in its point of re-entry, this made scientists pay attention. Of course this made the public and media take notice, causing a bit of a panic in some coverage.
Every day, hundreds of tons of debris, both human and natural (i.e. meteors), hit the Earth. Even those that survive re-entry and land pose a minute risk. Keep in mind, most of the Earth is unpopulated – from the oceans to vast deserts and land, nearly all people are safe.
The total surface are of the Earth is over 500 million square-kilometres. Even if a piece of space junk leaves a 1,000 square-kilometre debris field, that is only 0.0002% of the Earth’s surface.
In fact, the Aerospace Corporation has calculated the odds of getting hit by Tiangong-1 parts at 1 million times LESS than winning the lotto.
Now that you know you don’t have to worry, if you do end up being in a path that can see re-entry, you will see a show not unlike in the 2013 movie Gravity.
What are we doing about it
Of course the question has to be asked – what are we doing to both solve the junk already in space and prevent more? Well, lots actually.
A large source of space junk is all the rocket boosters and engines that are still up there and can be seen re-entering. If you remember the excitement in February around the Space X Falcon 9 Heavy launch, one of the huge reasons for excitement was that those rockets come back down safely, making them re-usable and not another piece of space junk.
Making satellites smaller not only means they are cheaper and quicker to build, but at the end of their life they can break up even more in the atmosphere, eliminating the possibility of large pieces surviving and landing.
And for all those small bits out there, Electro-Optic Systems (EOS) and Mount Stromlo Observatory are part of the Space Environment Research Centre (SERC) which is planning to build a laser system capable of safely de-orbiting small bits of space junk
So don’t worry about Tiangong-1 or other space junk hitting you, we’re on it.
United States President Donald Trump is not the first to complain about intellectual property (IP) theft by Chinese companies but ironically it was US companies’ use of China’s resources that led to the development of its powerhouse of patents.
In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, western firms like Apple and Intel made large profits by investing in China to take advantage of the cheap labour, often at terrific human cost. As China’s economy grew, and the population became wealthier, western firms were then able to profit by selling their products back to the wealthier children of the same labour force which made them.
The Chinese government saw this happening, and wanted western firms benefiting from the Chinese market to give something back. It established a system of approving foreign investments on the condition the businesses involved agreed to partner with local firms and transfer knowledge and skills to the local Chinese market.
In December 2001 when China joined the WTO it entered into the Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights to bring its IP laws up to a minimum international level. At the same time, the government was keen to transition from being a manufacturing-based economy to an innovation-based economy. This large step forward (as opposed to great leap) would be fuelled by expanding China’s domestically owned intellectual property.
One of China’s more controversial growth tactics has been to focus on fostering IP innovation within China. For example, the government preferences procurement of high-technology products whose IP is owned or registered in China.
This has been called a strategic attempt to commercialise non-Chinese ideas in China, and as a trade barrier potentially contravening China’s WTO commitments, including those under the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights agreement.
In 2010 the Obama administration filed a complaint with the WTO over China’s use of its innovation policies in the wind power industry. There’s been other complaints lodged relating to Chinese IP laws, one notably in 2007 argued that China has failed to enforce IP law on pirated products, even when they had been identified by victims and/or the Chinese authorities.
Since the late 1990s, China has been steadily improving the quality of its IP protection and the standard of its IP law enforcement. Many of its preferential policies favouring Chinese IP development have been wound back so as not to discriminate against foreign IP; or at least not so obviously. Other amendments have strengthened IP protection and enforcement, as well as increasing penalties for IP infringements.
In March 2017, for example, the General Provisions of the Civil Law were amended to make clear that trade secrets can be protected under civil IP laws. Amendments to the 1993 Anti-Unfair Competition Law in early 2017 also improved protection for trade secrets.
China’s quest for techno-military supremacy
China’s most recent, 13th five-year plan, approved by the National People’s Congress in early 2016, envisions China as a world leader in science, hi-tech and intelligent machines:
We will…expedite implementation of national science and technology programs… make breakthroughs in core technologies in fields including next generation information and communications, new energy, new materials, aeronautics, biomedicine and smart manufacturing…
Perhaps the best example of China’s goal of becoming a global leader in artificial intelligence (AI) is in the area of facial recognition technology. These systems, which automatically identify an individual from a database of digital images, are now a part of everyday life in China in areas such as public security, financial services, transport and retail services.
This technology is also just one aspect of a broader system being rolled out by the Chinese authorities. It aims to monitor and influence the whole of Chinese society (individuals and organisations) through social credit ratings.
China knows that an essential part of achieving its aim of “science and intelligent technology leadership” is putting in place high quality legal protection for intellectual property. However, as recent reports from the United States have found, there remain many deficiencies in China’s protection of trademarks, copyrights, and patents.
IP enforcement in the case of piracy and other breaches is often inadequate. Either there is no prosecution of breaches, no positive finding that a breach has occurred or the penalty applied is too light to have any deterrence value.
However, for firms that do take the trouble to properly register their IP in China, protection does exist and enforcement is improving and will continue to improve.
Even though Australia follows the United States in much of its policy, Australian exporters and consumers will be hoping we don’t get caught in the crossfire as the US and China impose sanctions on each other.
These sanctions could make Chinese exports more expensive or prevent access to the US market. China has already indicated it will play tit for tat, imposing its own sanctions.
Trade disputes are often as much about rhetoric as about reality. China will remind the world that the US began as a pirate nation, harvesting European technological innovation and cultural production (such as work by Byron, Shelley, Dickens and Trollope) on the basis that it was a developing nation and because it could.
Away from the headlines China will likely take the US to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), a global mechanism for resolution of trade disputes. The US has announced it will take China to the WTO over patent violations.
The US will presumably ramp up claims with the WTO against other trading partners (such as India, Indonesia, Thailand and members of the European Union) that appear on its watch list for allegedly pirating US knowhow.
What this means for Australia
Academics such as Matthew Rimmer have astutely highlighted disadvantages for Australian consumers as citizens of an IP colony. This is where we import more than we export in content and pay a premium for work from overseas.
For example, we pay more than our US counterparts for software and hardware that most people take for granted. Our IP regime – in principle and practice – construes many violations of IP rights as piracy.
Our regime is aligned with that of the US. That reflects our traditional defence policy and the significance of US investment. What is good for US companies Microsoft, Pfizer and Disney is deemed to be good for Australia.
But joining in this cascade of retaliation will jeopardise economic growth, foster political unrest in developing economies and penalise consumers. The salient feature of economic growth over the past four decades has been globalisation – trade and investment across borders – rather that fundamental productivity gains through information technology.
Integration with the global economy (alongside the hollowing-out of local manufacturing and the TAFE system) mean that we cannot turn back the clock to the days of Alfred Deakin. Deakin’s grand compromise – the Australian Settlement – promised to protect small farmers, local manufacturers and workers behind walls that restricted migration and imports.
The headline-grabbling sanctions from Trump might also not necessarily be supported. Some business leaders recognise the importance of trade across the global economy and are perplexed by the current policy that seems to be driven by Trump’s late-night tweeting rather than anything coherent.
Where does that leave China?
China’s response has so far been cool. Moderation in the public arena highlights the idiosyncratic nature of Trump’s statements. It also reflects a deeper reality.
China wants to sell high-technology products to Australia, the US and other nations. One is example is 5G telecommunication networks from Huawei.
It wants the advantages that come from exploitation of the global IP regime, with its innovators and entrepreneurs building portfolios of patents and buying leading Western brands. It is likely to emulate what we saw with Japan: from “pirate” to IP citizen, complying with laws, within a few decades.
Beijing is slowly strengthening the enforcement of IP rules in key regions such as China’s Pearl River Delta. In part that’s an effort to reduce the backlash in its export markets and it’s also a recognition that growth may be a matter of fostering innovation rather than copying or cheap labour.
Australia sources many manufactured items from China, with that production often dependent on US, Japanese and EU IP. Our own economy depends on exports of commodities; universities are dependent on overseas (particularly Chinese) students. So we don’t want to see an increase in international tensions and don’t want a slowing of the global economy because of a cascade of tit-for-tat sanctions.
Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to transform China’s military into the world’s most powerful force by 2050. And he could be on track to do it.
On the opening day of its National People’s Congress in Beijing yesterday, China reported a defence budget of ¥1.11 trillion ($A225 billion) for 2018. That represents an 8.1% increase in its defence budget, compared to a 7% increase last year.
China’s military has modernised rapidly in recent years. Since January alone it has demonstrated new capabilities in stealth fighter jets, drones, naval ships and advanced missiles.
Chinese scientists are also working to develop revolutionary technologies that would change the way wars are fought – and the way we live.
Challenging US military might
While China still lags the US in overall technological capability, it has narrowed the gap substantially. In the coming decades, it is poised to challenge US technological supremacy in key fields such as artificial intelligence, supercomputing and quantum information science.
What explains China’s rise as a technological power?
First, it has leveraged the innovation of other countries via technology transfers, and the acquisition of foreign companies and talent. It has also been reverse-engineering Western technology, and conducting state-sponsored industrial espionage.
According to one security analysis, between 2006 and 2013 the Chinese military stole confidential data from more than 140 organisations around the world. The problem was so serious that in May 2014, the US Department of Justice indicted five Chinese military hackers for cyber-espionage activities against US companies.
Second, China has been able to mobilise resources for priority technology sectors and research and development (R&D) projects in a way that many democracies are simply unable to do because of the limits of government power or popular mandate. Large state subsidies, government R&D funding, tailored regulations, market barriers and lax individual rights (such as privacy) protection have given Chinese domestic companies an edge over their foreign competitors.
Finally, China has substantially increased its R&D expenditure in recent years. From 2012 to 2017, China’s annual R&D spending rose 70.9% to ¥1.76 trillion ($A356 billion). The US National Science Board expects China to surpass the US in R&D investment, in purchasing power terms, by the end of this year.
China’s new superweapons
Here are a few examples of how China is making rapid progress in high-tech fields with military applications.
Hypersonic technology could one day allow us to travel from Beijing to New York in about two hours, rather than the 13 hours it currently takes. China is developing a hypersonic glide vehicle known as DF-ZF to make its nuclear and non-nuclear missiles extremely fast, manoeuvrable and capable of defeating existing missile defence systems.
To support this effort, China is building the world’s most advanced hypersonic wind tunnel for testing the extreme conditions of supersonic flight. While an operational hypersonic missile is still years away, once developed it would be a formidable weapon. It could also have a destabilising effect on strategic relations between China and other powers by compressing the time window for decision-making in a conflict or crisis situation.
Another area of China’s focus is quantum technology, which uses subatomic mechanics to process and transmit information in a fraction of the time required by existing technology.
China is making rapid headway in quantum communication, computing and cryptography. In August 2016, China launched the world’s first quantum satellite. This enabled Chinese researchers to conduct cutting-edge experiments in quantum entanglement and teleportation. To win the quantum race, China announced last year that it will build the world’s largest quantum research facility at a cost of ¥76 billion ($A15.4 billion).
Quantum technology would enable the Chinese military to set up virtually unbreakable communication networks. It would also provide it with overwhelming computing power for information operations, such as the decryption of secret communications by adversaries.
China is also in the advanced stages of developing an electromagnetic railgun. This supergun uses electromagnetic energy to shoot powerful projectiles over vast distances at incredible speed. These projectiles are aerodynamic and their power comes from the kinetic damage generated by the intense speed at which they travel.
Recent photos circulated on Chinese social media show what is suspected to be an experimental electromagnetic railgun mounted on the bow of the Chinese navy ship. This indicates that China may soon be the first in world to test such a weapon at sea, where it could revolutionise naval combat. In contrast, the US Navy is winding down its railgun research program because of resource constraints and shifting priorities.
The above examples are only a few among dozens of high-tech fields in which China is making rapid progress. Others include biotechnology, robotics, supercomputing, nanotechnology, advanced materials, space technology, and artificial intelligence. In fact, the Chinese government has identified 17 engineering and science megaprojects that are key to China’s economic and military strength. These include advanced satellites, large nuclear reactors, large aircraft and high-end electronic chips.
China’s continued rise as a technological giant will have profound implications for its military power as Beijing leverages civilian technology for its military. This effort is so important that President Xi considers it a top priority. To underscore this, Xi created a powerful commission under his direct leadership to provide high-level guidance and oversight.
Much hinges on how Beijing chooses to use its new-found military and technological might. Indeed, China’s extensive geopolitical ambitions and increasingly assertive foreign policy are ominous signs that foreshadow the challenges ahead.